I’d never really considered my 8-year-old son to be a delicate or sensitive child. He’s more of a rough-and-tumble, bull-in-a-china-shop, try-anything-once, rub-some-dirt-in-that-scrape kind of kid. Nothing grosses him out, he’ll eat almost anything, and he’s built like a miniature linebacker.

But a few weeks ago, I brought him into work with me to pick up a few things so I could work from home the rest of the day. To his delight, I let him push the buttons on the elevator, and after a quick pit stop on the third and fifth floors (those buttons are just too tempting), we made it to the top floor and rounded the corner to my row of cubicles.

We greeted my coworkers, and I started gathering up the materials I’d need for the day. Meanwhile, my son, who is normally a social butterfly and a bottomless pit of questions, was being awfully quiet.

Suddenly, without any warning, he grabbed my trash can and started heaving into it. I’ll spare you the details and just say that there was nothing left in that poor child’s stomach after a few minutes of retching.

Between heaves, he stopped to look at me with his big brown eyes as I rubbed his back. Then he said something that blew my mind.

“I don’t like the air in your office,” he squeaked out in a tiny little voice, tears welling up in his eyes. “The air feels sick in here. Can we go now?”

A few minutes later, we left for home. He didn’t throw up again and was healthy and happy for the rest of the day. I didn’t think about it again until I was chatting last week with ASHRAE member Drake Erbe, who also serves as vice president of market development for Airxchange Inc. He casually mentioned sick building syndrome while we were talking about ventilation trends.

“Kids, when they come in, they can sense right away whether that space is really healthy or not,” he said, prompting me to tell him the story about my son. He listened, not surprised, and then simply said, “People need outside air, and they don’t feel good if they don’t have it.”

Since then, I’ve noticed that several of my office mates and I frequently suffer many of the indicators of sick building syndrome — headaches, dry eyes, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, sneezing, and coughing, to name a few. And as I worked on the April 21 ventilation issue, I learned more and more about what the industry is (and isn’t) doing to bring enough fresh air into buildings.

Building codes mandating mechanical ventilation are lacking on the residential side. Building owners are often limiting outdoor air intake in an attempt to save money. IAQ is falling by the wayside. The result: sick building occupants (and the occasional puking kid). It’s especially a problem in schools, Erbe pointed out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Much of the responsibility for properly ventilating buildings rests on the contractors’ shoulders, but instead of seeing it as a burden, contractors should see it as an opportunity.

Not only can contractors improve the quality of the air inside their customers’ buildings, but they can also help improve the health of that building’s occupants. By asking the right questions and offering up a variety of solutions, contractors can improve their bottom lines while improving their customer’s indoor environment and health.

Everyone wins, and nobody ends up with a puke-filled trash can.

Publication date: 4/21/2014 

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